Featured in our 5th Annual Faces of Sports Issue!
From the moment Serena Williams burst onto the professional tennis scene in 1995 it was clear that the face of women’s professional tennis was about to change forever. You can count on one hand the number of African-American Grand Slam tennis champions that took home the top prize prior to Serena Williams – Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Yannick Noah. She has 23 Grand Slam title wins and is planning to beat Margaret Court’s record of 24. In a career spanning two decades and counting, her grit, fire and tenacity on the tennis court have also brought changes beyond her sport.
Serena, along with her older sister Venus have never been too rich or too famous NOT to give back to those who may be struggling or disadvantaged. In 2004 the Williams sisters partnered with Ronald McDonald House Charities to hold an exhibition fund-raising tennis tour to create, fund and support programs that directly improve the health and well-being of children.
Growing up in Compton, California was a grim, frightening experience. “I come from Compton. I come from a family that had to work for everything it got, and took nothing for granted. I had to worry about all kinds of things growing up,” she said. “But ultimately, that fear, it drove us forward,” she explained in the HBO documentary series, “Being Serena.” Compton became the catalyst for her to give back, to make things better for others.
Following the senseless 2003 gang-related murder of their sister Yetunde Price in Compton, Serena and Venus opened a community center there to support residents affected by gun violence. The Yetunde Price Resource Center serves as a support system, a place where people can get the help they need after the death of a loved one.
And after opening a secondary school in Kenya called The Serena Williams Secondary School in 2008, Serena called it a landmark event in her life. The school’s mission is to help individuals or communities effected by senseless violence, ensuring them equal access to education. Most of the students enrolled in this school are from poor families.
But Serena’s latest impact on the women’s tennis world may be her most lasting. Following a Sepember 2017 emergency cesarean section to deliver daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., she nearly died due to complications from blood clots that included additional surgeries; it kept her in bed for six weeks. While many expected that to be the end of her tennis career, just 14 months later, at age 37 Serena made her official comeback and won her match. When most players her age have already retired, she’s challenging the status quo once again.
When she wore a black Nike catsuit at the French Open in August, the controversy surrounding it being banned as disrespectful to tennis and the French Open actually brought world-wide attention to issues of gender bias, of controlling women athletes, especially powerful Black women athletes. And when people learned that Serena’s catsuit was intended to help with her long-standing problem with blood clots, it also brought attention to the fact that African-Americans have double the risk for blood clots.
So whether she is on or off the court, there can be little doubt that Serena Williams will be remembered not only as the greatest female tennis player of all time but also as a powerful champion for positive change in the world.
By Bryan Lee